Bryan Caplan  

Rejoinder to Weeden

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[Update: This post originally claimed that Americans keep 97% of their pretax income for themselves, which is impossible given taxes.  I meant to say that Americans only donate 3% of their pretax income.  Thanks to Ross Levatter for the correction].

During last week's visit to LA, I was able to meet up with Andrew Healy, David Henderson, Charley Hooper, Brian Doherty, David Gordon, and Alex Epstein.  Meanwhile, in cyberspace, Jason Weeden has been energetically replying to my critiques of his and Kurzban's The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind.  In fact, he's replied to all three of my posts: me/him, me/him, me/him.  After reading his replies, I don't have lots to add to my original critiques.  But here are a few objections to his main reply.  Weeden's in blockquotes, I'm not.
There's a real danger here of talking past each other. In his review, Caplan points to his lecture outline on self-interest in politics. In it, he says he interprets "'people are self-interested' as 'on average, people are at least 95% selfish.'" This is an incredibly high bar.

Most behavior in markets seems to meet this >95% bar.  Americans, charitable by world standards, only donate about 3% of their pretax income.  And much of that "charity" goes to churches, schools, and other clubs that give donors substantial private benefits in exchange.  I don't recall any admission in Weeden and Kurzban that, even if they're right, people are much less selfish in politics than in markets.

This difference leads to some confusion. Caplan, for example, claims that we do not admit that "non-interest-based ideology" affects people's views. This is contradicted by our explicit remarks on this topic. For instance, on page 206 we wrote: "When it comes to party identifications and ideological labels, we think they can exert substantial causal influence on a range of judgments." This admission doesn't compromise our central point, though, since we never said that ideology doesn't matter at all or is entirely about self-interest. Instead, our project was to look at whether self-interest has substantial effects on public opinion, regardless of what else might matter.

Hardly.  Weeden and Kurzban repeatedly claim that ideology summarizes interests, so it's natural to read their admissions in this light.

Caplan says that we "trumpet a strong, incredible thesis, then 'interpret' virtually every fact to fit it" and that we "never clearly state what would count as evidence against their view." I could say the same of Caplan's book, The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Nope.  Most obviously, I have a ton of regressions where I'm (a) right if experts and laymen disagree a lot on average, (b) exaggerating if experts and laymen only disagree a little on average, and (c) wrong if experts and laymen agree on average.

Our agenda was not exclusively to try to falsify our own view, just as Caplan's agenda was not exclusively to try to falsify his own.

"Exclusively trying to falsify your own view" is indeed a silly approach.  My complaint about Weeden and Kurzban is that they make near-zero effort to falsify their own view until the final chapter, when they discuss two cases - the environment and foreign policy - they perceive as problematic.

Here are some examples. In Caplan's lecture outline, he says: "Unemployment policy - The unemployed not much more in favor of relief measures." It's an empirical claim. When we checked the data in our book, we found that the unemployed were about 29 percentage points more supportive of unemployment benefits than those working full time. Similarly, Caplan says: "National health insurance - The rich and people in good health are about as in favor." In our book, we found that wealthier people with health insurance were 19 percentage points less supportive than poorer people without health coverage when it comes to opinions on whether it ought to be the government's responsibility to provide health coverage.

Very misleading.  All of the studies I'm summarizing report coefficients on self-interested variables after controlling for confounding factors.  Weeden and Kurzban actually admit this in their book, but not loudly enough for casual readers to notice.

If these sorts of analyses do not count as evidence against Caplan's view, it's unclear what would.
Let me make it clear what would count as evidence against my view: Re-run your regressions with standard control variables like self-identified ideology, and show me that (a) the coefficients on the standard control variables are small, and (b) the coefficients on your measures of self-interest shrink by less than 25%.
Relatedly, Caplan says we believe that one's allies and social networks consist of "millions of people." This is false. Our point (pp. 38-40) was that individuals often have a tangible stake in what happens with the actual circle of non-related people with whom they share benefits and burdens (mostly including romantic partners and close friends, but also leaking over into co-workers, fellow church members, etc.). This may be indirect self-interest, but it's certainly not the absence of self-interest.
Very well, how big can these "non-related circles" be?  50?  100? 

Again, e.g., if individuals who are religious minorities tend to oppose discrimination against religious minorities, it's incoherent to say that that's evidence of an absence of self-interest. If individuals who engage in casual sex don't want others imposing social costs on people who engage in casual sex, it's incoherent to say that that's evidence of an absence of self-interest. And so on.

I agree that such patterns raise the possibility of a big role for self-interest.  But Weeden and Kurzban rush to judgment, while I want a patient investigation.  For example: If you think religious minorities oppose employment discrimination out of self-interest, you should compare the opinions of working versus retired religious minorities.  If you reply that retired religious minorities care about their kids' job prospects, you need to demonstrate a large belief gap between retired religious minorities with and without children. 

The same goes for sexual politics.  If people who have lots of casual sex oppose abortion out of self-interest, I want evidence that, people frequently switch their opinions on abortion after marriage, incels are pro-life, etc.

Further, Caplan quotes a section where we ourselves discuss issues we think don't fit with a self-interest account - how can a tautology produce such results?

Because the tautological reasoning is inconsistent, of course; see my discussion of the motte-and-bailey fallacy.

Of course you can always find ways to make demographic coefficients shrink in models of public opinion by "controlling" for ideology, party affiliation, and various explicitly political scales (like right-wing authoritarianism, etc.).
"Always"?  No.  It's even possible for demographic coefficients to get bigger after controlling for other variables.  For example, the belief gap between economists and the public slightly rises after controlling for ideology and party, because economists hold pro-market views despite their leftish tendencies.

Let's say that income, race, and gender combine to predict to a degree views on redistributive issues. And then let's say that these coefficients are greatly reduced by "controlling" for ideology, party affiliation, and so on. Does that mean that income, race, and gender never mattered in the first place? Does being a conservative Republican turn poor, minority women into rich, white men? At best, this doesn't mean that income, race, and gender don't matter, but suggests something about the manner in which they matter.

So we're back to tautology.  By this logic, Weeden and Kurzban would be right even if one-dimensional ideology perfectly predicted all political views.

Caplan says that the book doesn't produce multiple regressions including "a simple measure of left-right ideology as an explanatory variable" and that it "never 'races' its thesis against any competing view." But there were reasons we chose not to run these races. First, I have big doubts about whether such correlates are in fact primarily causes rather than effects or non-causal siblings.

When social scientists have such doubts, they usually still run the regressions and report the results.  Why don't you?

If you've followed Caplan's work, you'll know that he is deeply committed to advancing libertarian policy objectives. His argument in service of this objective is, basically: (1) People mostly just want what's best for society as a whole. (2) Libertarian economists know better than others what's best for society as a whole. (3) Therefore, people should follow the policy advice of libertarian economists.

Step 2 might well be true. But, if it turns out step 1 is wrong, and that political disagreement has a lot to do with competing constituencies' self-interest, then it's harder to get to step 3.

An interesting theory.  But I can assure you that most libertarians disagree with me.  Like most people, libertarians love chalking up their opponents' views to self-interest.  That's why they're so fond of orthodox public choice theory - and why I've struggled to talk them out of it.

If low-education native-born folks tend to oppose libertarian immigration policies because they're often worse off under these policies, then that's a problem for the argument. Or if low-income people with low-income social networks tend broadly to favor greater income redistribution because their own circumstances are advanced, then that's also a problem.

Not really.  I could just as easily argue that people are self-interested, but mistaken about what policies serve their self-interest. 

P.S. Rather than keep criticizing Weeden and Kurzban, I'm going to re-do their abortion regressions the way I think they should have been done.  I announce this before looking at the data, and will report whatever I find.  Stay tuned.




COMMENTS (1 to date)
JFA writes:

Can you list the "standard controls" you will be using in the regression? This will make your regression exercise less open to cherry-picking claims.

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